According to the Bible, Luke understood that old wine was finer than new wine. Although there is some evidence of ageing wine in Ancient Greece it is likely the Romans were the first connoisseurs to appreciate aged fine wines. Certain wines were suitable for ageing because of their high sugar content and these were stored in sealed earthenware jars. The best Falernian wines required 15 to 20 years before they were considered at their best and were sometimes kept for decades. After the collapse of the Roman Empire, the appreciation of aged wines disappeared for a millennium.

The thin, low-alcohol wines of northern Europe were good for only a few months, after which they turned sour and were sold cheap. The only wines that could be enjoyed a little longer were the sweeter and more alcoholic wines of the Mediterranean such as Malmsey and Sack. By the 16th century, exceptions to this rule could be found in the casks of top quality Riesling wine kept beneath German palaces. These wines were preserved through a combination of sweetness and acidity, the coldness of the cellar, and topping up the casks to avoid oxidation.

The major breakthrough though was the introduction of corks and glass bottles in the 17th century in Britain that led to the rediscovery of ageing wines, in particular the newly fashionable Port and Claret. The science of wine ageing is poorly understood. For red wines it is believed to be the result of the polymerisation of tannins and flavour compounds. Over time these combine to form larger molecules that precipitate as sediment once they reach a certain size causing the wine to become paler in colour. At the same time as these visible changes occur, the wine’s flavour and aroma also changes. A wide range of molecules known as flavour precursors that were attached to glucose detach themselves (through a natural, and time-dependent, process of hydrolysis) and contribute their individual flavour characteristics to the older wine. The oxidation of some compounds and the interaction of increasingly complex acids and alcohols also play a role. The rate at which all of these occur is influenced by a number of factors including storage temperature, cork (or other stopper) condition, pH level and sulphur dioxide level.

If our understanding of red wine maturation is incomplete, even less is known about the ageing process in white wines. Recent research suggests that as with red wines the hydrolysis of glycosides (molecules combining a sugar with another compound often known as a flavour precursor) is important in developing varietal character. White wines begin life in bottle with a much lower tally of phenolics than red wines, although those phenolics they have strongly influence colour and apparent astringency. White wines become browner with age, presumably because of the slow oxidation of their phenolic content. They may also throw a sediment, although very, very much less than a red wine of similar quality.

Bodegas Olvena Chardonnay (equal best white)

This modern winery was only established in 1999 with the planting of new vineyards and the purchase of existing vineyards. Their first vintage was released in 2002. Located in the Aragon region of north eastern Spain the Somontano area is located in the foothills of the Pyrenees. Although hot in summer the combination of the cooling effect of the mountains, plentiful cool breezes and vineyards located at a variety of different altitudes enables the production of a variety of styles of wines, including crisp whites. 2007 Officially rated as “Excellent” the cool summer helped maintain acidity levels. 2008 Officially rated as “Very Good” although heavy rainfall during summer reduced yields. 2009 Officially rated as “Very Good” with a warm, dry summer.

Domaines Schlumberger Riesling (equal best white, best value)

Established in 1810 Schlumberger are one of the largest vineyard owners in Alsace with 140ha of which half are classified as Grand Cru. Unlike most producers they are therefore able to supply all their own grapes without buying in from elsewhere. Situated in the south of Alsace on the steep hillsides of the Vosges, the vineyard benefits from the best exposures (southwest, south, southeast); its slopes can reach 50°. The steepness of the slopes means the vineyards have to be worked by horse rather than tractor. 2005 A very good year with well defined fruit flavours. One of the best vintages of the decade. 2006 A very difficult year with substantial rot giving many wines dull mushroom aromas. 2007 Rain and hail during summer caused problems but the harvest was dry and better producers learned the lesson of 2006 and had thinned leaves so as to reduce problems with rot.

Simonsig Pinotage

Run by the three Malan brothers, Pieter, Johan and Francois, Simonsig is one of the longest established and most highly regarded producers in the Cape. French Huguenot Jacques Malan arrived in 1688 but it was the brothers’ father, Frans Malan, who did most to build the company’s reputation introducing a number of innovations, including the creation of South Africa’s first Methode Champenoise sparkling wine. Located to the north west of Stellenbosch within sight of the Simonsberg Mountain, from which the estate takes its name, the vineyards are located at altitude and enjoy a cool maritime Mediterranean climate. 2004 Generally a very good vintage although poor weather around flowering caused some problems. 2005 One of the hottest ever vintages producing reds with firm tannins and good ageing potential. 2007 A long, cool vintage producing small berries resulting in good colour and concentration.

Château De Pez (best red)

Dates back to the 15th century but the first vines were planted in 1749 by the de Pontac family who also owned Châteaux Margaux and Haut-Brion. Currently owned by Champagne house Louis Roederer the 23ha of vineyards are planted with 70% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Cabernet France and 15% Merlot. De Pez produces rounded, ripe and mouthfilling clarets which can be slow to evolve. The best vintages require 7-10 years to reach optimum maturity. 2002 An underrated vintage with a wet summer but fine September weather that favours Cabernet. 2004 A classic vintage with cool Autumn but warm September. 2005 Vintage of the century (along with 2000, 2009, 2010...)